Adrian Tomine is a master of the short, graphic vignette that leaves an impression — often dropping readers into a scene just long enough to grasp its mood and characters. His newest collection, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, is a memoir told through these vignettes, a sequence of brief but formative moments in Tomine’s life: when he announced as a child that he wanted to be a cartoonist; yearly visits to comic cons and book expos; his first date with his future wife.
Spanning from 1982 to 2018, each usually only 20 to 30-panel-vignette, opens with a year and location, allowing the reader to travel across time and space with Tomine from his youth in Fresno, California, to his life as a husband and father in Brooklyn. The book reads as a series of remembrances, heightened by a design scheme that mimics a graph-paper sketchbook. Most of the dialogue is internal — square after square reveals Tomine’s running anxieties and insecurities, never spoken aloud as he works and travels alone.
Certain scenes are excruciatingly awkward and funny, like an early recollection from 1998 in which, after an interview, he walks with a journalist but has to race home (journalist in tow) because he has diarrhea. Tomine draws this experience across several panels filled with his thoughts while on the toilet, surrounded by the onomatopoeic illustrations of his bathroom activities (BRAP FTTFTTFTT SPLASH). “COULD THAT DOOR BE ANY MORE FLIMSY? AMAZING HOW YOU NEVER NOTICE THESE THINGS UNTIL YOU’RE JUST ABOUT TO – – UH-OH…”), he thinks. Such recollections feel newly relevant as many of us continue to share closer quarters than usual at home.
Most of Tomine’s stories betray similarly relatable insecurities. After a reading at a literary event, he returns to his seat and thinks to himself, “[OVERLY-SENSITIVE, CHILDLIKE THOUGHTS OF INFERIORITY, EXCLUSION, SHAME, AND RESENTMENT]”.
Stories of unwanted public interventions into private life — once so ubiquitous among New Yorkers navigating the subway and crowded streets — also abound. In Penn Station with his wife and daughter, Tomine’s daughter begins to cry out for chips. Illustrated over several panels, he and his wife shift quickly from offering to buy her food to attempting to restrain her in the stroller. The crowds around them watch with raised eyes creeping into the edges of the frames and lurking in the background, emphasizing the public setting. The scene reaches its dramatic climax when Tomine turns to an older woman offering unsolicited advice and shouts, “I’ll spank your ass!!” After pages of crowded panels, this scene closes with notable slowness. Each participant’s reaction is illustrated in its own panel, halting the action as Tomine likewise slowly realizes his faux pas. Tomine’s pacing — brilliant throughout and especially here— offers the reader just enough to feel his range of emotions, taking us from loneliness and discomfort to laughter in just a few panels.